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Science, policy and Jell-O

At a time when the value of education and scientific research is increasingly being questioned by federal lawmakers, encouraging a new generation of policymakers in academia is vital.

At the end of March, four University of Utah graduate students spent three days in Washington D.C. for the Catalyzing Advocacy for Science and Engineering (CASE) workshop hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). At a time when the value of education and scientific research is increasingly being questioned by federal lawmakers, encouraging a new generation of policy-makers in academia is vital. The CASE workshop is designed to address exactly this need, introducing graduate students in STEM fields from across the country to the nuts and bolts of science policy and advocacy in the advancement of STEM nationwide.

The four students were Kendall FitzGerald from Geology, Rebecca Hardenbrook from Mathematics, Kaden Plewe from Mechanical Engineering, and Jewell Lund from Geography.  Their participation was made possible by the generous support of the Global Change and Sustainability Center (GCSC).

In Washington, the group met with 300 other students from across the United States from a diverse range of STEM disciplines. All were united by common interests in making their research relevant to policy and society, improving communication between the laboratory and the capital, and seeking opportunities for interdisciplinary research and communication. As Geography student Jewell Lund reported, “this is becoming ever more important to address the complex challenges society faces today.”

The workshop was quick to dive into the hard questions science policy and communication face today. Lund recounts how the CEO of the AAAS, Rush Holt, discussed how ambiguous the term “science policy” was. “There is a stark difference between policy for science, and science for policy,” Lund explained. While both are important, they mean different things. Policy for science dictates the terms under which research is performed nationwide. Yet science for policy is the specific research used to inform policy-making, and is where scientists have an important responsibility in influencing the policy landscape. Lund cites the impact of biologist Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking Silent Spring to show how science can deeply affect policy decisions.

The experience ultimately proved fruitful for the students. As Lund said, “my respect for this work has only deepened as I’ve gained a better perspective on the process.” The trip wasn’t all business, however: Utah Senator Mike Lee hosted the students for a Jello hour, where they discovered that Jello is the official favorite snack of Utah. Sharing Jello with Senator Lee and Senator Mitt Romney’s staff was a quirky and fun way to wrap up the trip. Yet reflecting on the trip, Lund doesn’t miss the importance and seriousness of the work these four Utah students have only just begun. As she says, “These interactions are an enlightening starting point for further development and interaction, and we are in the midst of establishing a student group focused on science and policy so that we can continue to explore this interface.”

The Global Change and Sustainability Center offers small grants for travel and research to eligible graduate students whose academic or research mentors are active faculty affiliates of the GCSC. Travel funding supports student participation in professional meetings, where they have the opportunity to present their research and network with peers and professionals in the field. Networking at professional meetings can not only lead to potential collaborations and other professional opportunities, but students are also likely to gain an expanded view of the discipline, its culture, and how their research interests fit into the broader landscape. The next deadline for research and travel grants is Sept. 15.